Pizzeria plus
Large screen televisions. Wireless Internet access. Leather couches and wine bars. Besides great pizza and superior customer service, what keeps diners coming back to their favorite pizzerias for another pie?   It is an important issue to consider. According to the National Restaurant Association, repeat business accounts for 80 percent of sales in the family dining segment, 75 percent in casual dining and 60 percent in fine dining.   Amenities and décor are an important part of the equation.   "Amenities are playing a bigger and bigger role in restaurants. Things like private meetings rooms or spaces, entertainment options, online ordering features, that sort of thing," said Annika Stennson, the association's media relations manager.   Comfortable chairs and tables in the dining room are a plus at pizzerias that hope to attract a loyal following, of course. But other elements in a restaurant's decor can help it stand out among all the others. In addition to great pizza and friendly service, offerings such as wireless Internet access or group meeting space can help turn occasional customers into regular ones.   "There is a computer club that meets regularly at our Schaumburg restaurant because it has Wandering WiFi. It's brought us repeat business there," said Mindy Kaplan, marketing director for Lou Malnati's Pizzerias in the Chicago area.
 
Another of Malnati's suburban restaurants has two meeting rooms and a large screen for presentations. These are used every month by the local Rotary Club for meetings that bring in dozens of business professionals.   And just as Lou Malnati's has done at two of its restaurants, two of Anthony Russo's New York Pizzeria restaurants, one in a Houston business district and one near a university, are equipped with WiFi. Having WiFi keeps the restaurants humming with diners at times that usually tend to be slower.
 
"There are a lot of business professionals and college students who really like it," he said. "They can park it, have lunch and get some work done."
 
Dining in comfort
 
At another of Malnati's pizzerias, in a hip, urban neighborhood populated by college students and young professionals, the chain takes a different approach to the amenities and decor.
 
This restaurant is furnished with a large screen television and comfortable leather sofas. Because it is near DePaul University, the restaurant attracts a younger clientele who want a cozy atmosphere and comfortable seating. They can munch on pizza while studying or meeting with friends. Or, they can sink into the sofas to watch the university's Blue Demon basketball team play on the big screen television.   
 
One of Russo's New York pizzerias in Houston's Midtown neighborhood is designed to appeal to a crowd with trendier tastes. It is decorated in dark, red hues and contemporary-style furnishings. Just a few months ago, the restaurant opened a wine bar.
 
"It's a 10 by 10-foot-space where bottles of wine are displayed on a rack and with cards that describe the wine," Russo said.
 
Wine is served by the bottle or the glass. The cards allow customers to read about the wines, their flavors and what foods they might best accompany.
 
The wine bar is appreciated by members of a local tennis club who have made Russo's their regular after-tennis spot for lunch.
 
"The ladies have lunch and a glass of wine. They seem to really like it," Russo said, adding that the company's wine sales are on the rise at the restaurant since installing the bar.
 
Flexibility is part of success
 
While franchises certainly benefit from having a signature theme to their décor that is identified and easily recognized by customers, it doesn't mean every element need be precisely the same at every restaurant in the chain.
 
For instance, Russo's New York Pizzeria takes a flexible approach to its design and extra offerings. The chain has 22 franchises in Texas and Tennessee and all of its restaurants have open kitchens, but some are furnished to suit their particular locations.  
 
Though he endorses following a basic theme, Russo also favors tweaking amenities and décor to appeal to specific customer bases. And deciding what added features are worth making the investment in at each location is not a decision that Russo makes lightly.
 
"We visit the neighborhood. We study the location. We meet with the architect to come up with a schematic design that fits in with the neighborhood," he said.
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All of Russo's restaurants may not have WiFi or a wine bar, but when it comes to décor and amenities, Russo does not recommend cutting corners. Cheap tables and chairs would not pass muster in his Midtown location or at the restaurant in Houston's business district, where professionals expect an ambience that will allow them to have a lunch meeting or get some work done.  
 
"I don't skimp on décor. Ambience is a big thing," he said. "We don't have cheap Formica-top tables. We have wood table tops and chairs."
 
Outdoor-dining options also can bring in new customers and keep them coming back. That's what happened at Fellini's Pizza, a small chain that opened 27 years ago in the Atlanta area that now has seven locations.
 
The restaurants feature some common elements: an open oven so diners can see their pizzas being prepared, and outdoor patios. Diners flock to the patio in the spring and summer months, said Helen Gibson, office manager.  The concrete patios are spacious, feature comfortable seating and have three-tier terra cotta fountains. Gibson has no doubt the open-air spaces generate repeat business.
 
"People love it," she said. "It's what we're known for."

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